Ellen Kaspern has been woodworking and making things for most of my life, and, in 2001, was accepted into the full-time cabinet & furniture making program at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. The school’s traditional training allowed her to totally immerse herself into woodworking & furniture making. From that time on, she has been teaching woodworking, making furniture, and working with wood.
What got you started?
My father had a woodworking shop in the basement of our house. Growing up, I was always down there helping him and making things out of wood. I had always been a crafty child, and my parents encouraged my love of making things. My dad had many furniture books, and I was constantly reading and looking through them. When I was in college I was reading one of my dad’s woodworking magazines and saw an article about the North Bennet Street School. Reading that article was a turning point for me. It was the first time I realized I could go to school for furniture making. After college I had moved to Boston to go to graduate school. This was in the early 90s. A couple of years after moving to Boston, I moved into an apartment directly across from the school. I thought it was fate. I went to the school’s open house that year with my dad and we were blown away. I knew I wanted to pursue woodworking seriously. I started making things with my father and taking workshops, so I could apply to the school. After I finished graduate school, I applied to NBSS and got into their furniture program. Quitting my job and going to school full-time for furniture making is hands down the best decision I have ever made.
What are the 3 most important things you've learned in woodworking?
There are so many things I have learned and I am still learning today. Working off of a reference edge when woodworking is one the most important lessons I have learned. It is the basis of everything I make. Secondly is the need to understand each machine's function and its limitations in the shop. Third, which probably took me too long to learn, is the importance of caring for and sharpening my hand tools regularly.
Why woodworking? What does it give you that other activities, and crafts don't?
I love to problem solve and I love to make things! Woodworking is a combination of both of those things. I love math and that is what I went to college and graduate school for. Woodworking and furniture making allows me to use my hands and figure out problems while making something beautiful and functional at the same time.
What's something everyone should know?
That there is more than one way to solve a problem when woodworking. If the voice inside your head is telling you something is unsafe then it most likely is. Figure out a different way to solve the problem. That could be by making a fixture or different setup at a machine, using a different machine altogether, or going back to basics and using your hand tools. That is the beauty of woodworking - there are many ways to accomplish the same thing.
Why do you make the specific things you make?
My education in traditional woodworking really plays a big part in what I make and how I make things. Having that foundation gives me the confidence to know that I can make anything. I am always looking at architecture and things in nature. The littlest thing can inspire me, especially my garden. It could be as simple as a line of an object or something I see out in nature. I am also a very nostalgic person, so I draw a lot of inspiration from things from my childhood and growing up. I have recently been working with Formica and inlaying it into my work, because my dad worked with it and made a lot of countertops using that material. I am constantly looking at objects and things and seeing how I can apply them to designs in my own work.
Who has had the greatest impact on your woodworking?
My woodworking community, which includes the friends I made while in school, my mentors & instructors, shop-mates, and students I have taught. I have stayed in close contact with many of the people I have met through woodworking and teaching. Without that community I would be lost. I know I can call or text them to ask questions, get help if a project is running behind, or ask for advice on how they might make something. I know I am not alone and have their support. I feel like I can do anything because of my community. Some of my very best friends are people I have met through woodworking and teaching at NBSS. I feel very fortunate and lucky to be part of an amazing group of people.
Have you incorporated lessons learned in other parts of your life in your woodworking?
Teaching has really influenced me as a woodworker. Students will often ask me what I am working on and what projects I am currently making. Most of my time in the shop is spent coming up with class ideas or rethinking how I am going to teach something. Teaching woodworking has really influenced me as a woodworker. I am constantly having to think of different ways to make something so I can teach to a wide range of skill levels. Then that spills over into my own work. Teaching has made me a much better maker and I learn every single time I teach a class. When I have an idea for a class I really need to think through the process of how to make it safely and efficiently. Also helping students learn, grow and gain confidence has really impacted me as a maker.
What would you teach another woodworker to improve their skills, understanding or design?
That nothing is perfect and we all make mistakes. Woodworking is just knowing how to fix your mistakes.
I love furniture design, and smart techniques. This blog is about both.